Toi te Taiao: Use of Human Genes in Other Organisms

Nathaniel Centre Staff
Issue 14, November 2004

Earlier this year Toi te Taiao: the Bioethics Council undertook a process of dialogue with New Zealanders on the cultural, spiritual and ethical issues arising from the use of human genes in other organisms. The process involved using focus groups to identify the issues, followed by a programme of dialogue meetings and 12 hui, an online dialogue process and written submissions. The Council presented its report to the Minister for the Environment, Marion Hobbs, in August.

The Council found broad agreement among a wide spectrum of people that it is ethically appropriate to use human genes in other organisms where this could alleviate human suffering or save lives.

The Council's report states that in strictly scientific terms it is difficult to sustain any distinction between a "human" gene and those from other organisms. All genes are made of the same chemicals (bases), and many human genes have the same or very similar sequences of bases to those found in organisms ranging from flatworms to chimps. Genes produce proteins, and increasingly scientists are producing human proteins without any direct physical use of a human gene or a copy of a human gene. A DNA sequence which will create a specific human protein can be synthesized in a laboratory and then inserted into the host organism. As more than one sequence of bases can produce the same protein, these "synthetic genes" do not need to have the same sequence of bases as the gene which produces the same protein in our bodies.

The Council notes that when this path is followed to produce a human protein, it is questionable whether a "human gene" is being used at all. The synthetic gene used to create the human protein has no connection with a particular person, and is not the same as genes found in humans.

However the Council points out that to many people human genes are more than chemicals – they have cultural significance. They have become symbols of what we have inherited from our ancestors (as in the Māori concept of whakapapa), as well as symbols of the relationships we have with one other and with other forms of life.

The Council concludes that the use of "human genes" (either copies or synthetic genes) for the production of a single protein in the host organism does not raise sufficient cultural, spiritual or ethical concerns to prevent this kind of use, particularly if it represents a step in research which aims to alleviate human suffering. However because human genes are a culturally (although not scientifically) significant group, their use in other organisms does require additional ethical considerations compared to other genetic modifications. The Council opposes any genetic modification of animals which would make them look like humans or provide a capacity for language and associated powers of reasoning. The Council also expressed concern about gaps in animal welfare legislation, and the effects of the commercialisation of science.